Category Archives: Inspiration

Return to Dhaka-Two Worlds

Bangladeshi workers returning home from the Mid East, Dubai

The majority of the passengers flying from Dubai to Dhaka were single men returning home from working in the Mid-East. The ones I spoke with were coming from Kuwait. With the global economic downturn I’m sure the situation isn’t good for them. The author James Novak in his book on Bangladesh “Reflections on Water” got it right 15 years ago and the situation hasn’t changed much since. On the first page he describes the middle aged expat NGO types flying into Dhaka  for their meetings  and conferences escaping the winter months of the USA and Europe. There were a few of them on my flight too.

The gate from Baridhara to the other Bangladesh

The taxi ride back into town felt strangely familiar. The local tea stall owner and rickshaw drivers in my neighborhood were in the same place as when I last saw them three weeks ago. Things appear chaotic at first glance but there is an hidden order to it. People have schedules and follow them to say nothing of all their hard work. Most of us would go off the deep end if we had to live that way for one hour.

Last weekend I went on a field trip with the art class from IUB led by professor Nazir Ahmed. He took over 70 students to the National Art Museum and a few other galleries. I love the creative projects he has done with students such as painting murals and launching exhibits on campus. Nazir studied in Norway and shares my taste for eclectic music.  The permanent collection of paintings at the National Museum was a huge inspiration. World class artists with a variety of styles. Some even looked  African influenced.  I had never heard of these artists but am sure some of their work is in European museum collections.

The World’s Happiest People?

Street vendor, Old Dhaka

I will  leave you for a short break with a collaborate post. A local correspondent for the BBC radio here in Dhaka told me about a recent poll that claims Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world. How on earth could that be? We have all heard the numbers and become desensitized by now. Most people surviving on a dollar a day. A country plagued by environmental disasters, lack of infrastructure, health and education, the list goes on.

I decided to ask some friends and colleagues, all from Bangladesh, what they thought the reasons were for this self contentment.  As far as I know people here aren’t taking Prozac.  Interesting also that no one mentioned the influence  of religion.

Taking tea

“People here value strong family ties – kids live with their parents until they are married, and are expected to take care of their parents when they get old. You won’t see too many nursing homes here, although the trend is emerging.”

“With life being harder here, there are lower expectations. People ask for less because they know they can’t afford it. I think the relative hardships one faces here, in terms of poverty, natural calamities, etc, has led to a greater appreciation of the smaller joys in life. A while back, we had two flash floods occurring in the same year, one after the other. People living in the slums near Gulshan- an upper class neighborhood- were reduced to squatting in makeshift tarpaulin tents on the pavements near our home. You would expect these people, who had literally lost their homes and much of their belongings, to be miserable. Every evening, on my way back from work, though, I’d be the one grumbling about the rising floodwater’s lapping at the tires of our car, while the squatters took time to live, laugh and enjoy. As the sun went down, the oil lamps came on, and the rickshaw wallahs would line up their vehicles and join their families. Someone would play the flute, children would sing and dance; and everyone would celebrate just being alive. It looked like something out of a Dickens novel. They certainly taught me a thing or two about human resilience.”

– Sabrina Ahmed, Journalist, Writer and University Faculty Member

“I think people in Bangladesh are the happiest because of the family bonding that we share, we take care of one another, it doesn’t matter whether we are 13 or 30 we live together with our family. The girls only leave when they are married. Another thing is, it takes very little to make us happy and our food is the best in the whole world.”

– Limana Solaiman, Student

“I have grown up hearing that Bangladeshi people are very easy to satisfy and that is why many think that they are happy people. The poor are happy if they have a roof over their head and three meals a day. They don’t worry about equity or want to fight for their rights. As long their stomach is full they think that life is good.”

“Also due to strong family ties and bonding people find happiness in other people’s happiness and success. For example, even if a person is not very successful but has a cousin who is a prominent person he will be ecstatic about it tell everyone  that he knows that prominent figure. So as they find achievement in other people’s achievements that may also be a reason that Bangladeshi people are so happy. This is my personal view but I always hear people say that the reason we are happy people is because most of us don’t have unending wants and are easily satisfiable.”

– Tabassum Amina, University Faculty Member, Sociologist

“The main reason is poverty. Because of poverty most of the people’s expectations are low. In Bangladesh poverty is responsible for the lack of education. That is  ultimately why our expectation level is low. In Bangladesh, most of the people’s primary concern is only for food and shelter. When that is taken care they  feel happy. You  should also remember that urban and culture is not so strong in Bangladesh.  Rural life is a significant part of Bangladesh. That is why most of the people are free from alienation and fear of isolation. That is why most of the people can be optimistic and are happy with their life.”

– Shoma Afroja, Journalist and TV Anchor

“I can share one experience of mine. It was about a year ago. On the 19th November 2007…. just two days after the SIDR cyclone hit Bangladesh I went to Char Montaj which was devastated, and was shocked to see such a scare from  a natural disaster. I went there to assist with relief activities with the NGO Action Aid. At ten in the morning I found a girl who was barely 17, but already the mother of three kids. She was playing with her three month old child in an open place…no proper shelter… just under a tree…and her other two kids were playing beside her. When  I asked how she was all she said was that “a number of bad things had happened but we were alive….what else can we do?”

“Maybe it’s the climate in this tropical zone. People in the countryside do not have to struggle that much. They do not have big dreams either. Whatever they receive they take it as a bonus.”

-Sifat Azam, University Faculty Member, Development and Environmental Studies

Local Heroes

Acts of survival and heroism are seen everywhere here. The displaced rickshaw driver from the countryside or the mother just trying to feed her child. Bangladeshi’s bring new meaning to the word resilient. They get knocked down by cyclones, floods and other disasters and bounce back for more. With social services and healthcare almost non-existent, people like the Korean Sisters and Brothers from Kottongne are only able to serve the “lucky” few with love and laughter.

Nari Jabon

Reviewing student photography assignments

The past month I’ve been teaching a photography workshop at Nari Jibon, a very unique NGO here in Dhaka. Hira (pictured above) went out and made photo’s of men in her neighborhood for last week’s assignment. How cool is that!

Nari Jibon means Woman’s Lives in Bangla and was founded by Dr. Kathy Ward, a Sociology professor from Southern Illinois University. Nari Jibon serves a diverse group of women and girls ranging from Bengali medium students with some English skills to women with limited literacy in Bangla and little or no education. Over the past three years, they have continually served the needs of the women and their families. They currently offer two programs. The larger one offers English/computer skills and gives the  women an opportunity to learn to read, write, and speak in office level English or improve existing English skills. Their technology director Taslima Akter, has also taught several of the woman to “tell their stories” through blogging.

Garment Workers Rehearsal- Second Night of Ramadan

The woman on the right is being comforted after losing her baby

Last night I went to a rehearsal for a play by young woman garment workers. Bangladesh is a major supplier of clothes to the USA and other parts of the world. There are hundreds of factories (huge six floor building) through out Dhaka alone. The young woman were being directed (he called himself a facilitator) by a young professor of drama from Dhaka University. One of the young men translated the plot- real stories from the workers lives that also includes a dialogue with the audience at the end of the play. The director had just picked up a copy of “The Vagina Dialogues” earlier in the day and was also reading Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks.”

After rehearsal, they invited me to stay and break fast with them.  We ate special food for Ramadon called Iftar- deep fried snacks and very sweet cakes- on newspapers spread out on the floor  Big thanks to my photographer friend Saiful Haq Omi and Anis for the invite. Their organization Counter Foto is sponsoring the performance and I plan to see how it all comes together.

Doctor Fawzia Khan

On the road to Fuldi

This morning I caught a bus hoping to explore some of the villages North East of Dhaka. The only problem was that none of the destinations are marked in English but as luck would have it a Bangladeshi woman with impeccable English was sitting in the front row. Moments later Doctor Fawzia Khan told me about her mission and I decided to accompany her. She was going to her families village about 30 km and 3 buses rides away carrying the portrait of her father wrapped in newspaper. It ended up taking us 2 1/2 hours to get there. All of a sudden in the third vehicle (a mini pick-up called a tempo), it started pouring sheets of rain as we bumped along down a muddy single lane surrounded by flooded rice fields, jute plants and lilies, the national flower of Bangladesh.

Dr. Khan holding a portrait of her Father

Dr. Khan lived and practiced in Texas for over 12 years but returned to Bangladesh one year ago after her mother passed away. Her father, Fasi Uddin Khan was an educator and Doctor who founded a school in the village we visited. Over 700 students attend that school today. Twice a week Dr. Khan’s mission is to visit her village and treat patients in a small clinic behind a pharmacy. Dr. Khan recently started Shurjobanu Health & Education Foundation (SHEF) in honor of her mother Shamsunnahar Khan. SHEF is already providing scholarships to students of Fuldi high school.

Many of her relatives in the village also practice some form of traditional medicine and for me  she represents the independence and strength of Bangladeshi women. Ten minutes after we arrived the electricity  went off and for the next few hours the place was so dark that it was a challenge to make a photo, even with my light sensitive digital camera.